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Lighting Artwork: Using the Right Fixtures to Make an Impact

Imagine entering a gallery filled with masterpieces. The space is hushed, dramatic, peaceful, and magical. The colors, textures, and tales of each piece draw you in. You can focus on every detail, every brushstroke or flick of the sculptor’s hand. Colors are vivid, bright, and true. Forms are clear and deeply impactful. Now imagine this experience in your own home. While you may not have masterworks on display, your art and décor may be just as priceless due to the memories and feelings they evoke. That’s why it’s so important to ensure that your lighting gives these extraordinary pieces their due.


Understanding The Importance Of Lighting Artworks

Remember that most artwork on display is purely visual, meaning that our experience of it is defined by the light we can see. Great lighting can make a piece come alive, while improper illumination can cause work to fade into the background. Not only that, but certain types of lighting can damage paintings and prints by fading them over time, so it’s essential to be thoughtful about how each type of artwork is illuminated.

Different artworks need different lighting. Oil paintings benefit from softer lighting to show their depth, nuance, and texture, while acrylic paintings are best viewed in brighter lighting to capitalize on their bold coloration. The subtlety of watercolors bloom under mid-level lighting, but since they’re most often displayed behind glass, we must be careful of reflections and glare.

However, UV rays or heat from certain lights may harm all types of art over time, particularly the delicate pigments of watercolors and color photography. While LEDs emit less UV radiation and produce less heat than incandescent lights, they can also render colors incorrectly. That’s why selecting LED bulbs and fixtures with high Color Rendering Index (CRI) listings is essential. The higher the number, the more accurately and vividly colors will be rendered under their illumination.

Choosing The Right Fixtures

First, consider the mood of your art piece and the space in which it will be displayed. Are you looking for a bold, crisp, modern feel or an intimate, cozy, warm glow where your artwork whispers rather than shouts? Do you plan on moving pieces around throughout the year, or will things stay in the same place? Will your collection grow over time?

For most art, adjustable recessed lighting is the best option for bright and even illumination. The rule of thumb is to place lights 18 to 24 inches away from the wall they’ll illuminate, and for larger pieces, consider two or three lights to provide an even wash from side to side and top to bottom. Multi-head fixtures like WAC’s Silo series are great options with multiple lights in one fixture, allowing for precise aiming, beam angle adjustment, and the addition of lenses and glare control accessories (like honeycomb louvers or snoots) to create the perfect, focused light.

For display spaces in which art will frequently move or collections that will grow, the flexibility of track lighting is your best option. Rather than fixed light locations, tracks allow for infinite adjustability, and next-generation systems like WAC’s Strut and Eurofase’s Construct offer not only aimable track heads, but also the option to add non-glare downlight arrays, wall washers, and even pendant lighting.

Remember to install dimmers for all your fixtures in a space, including your art lighting. You want to strike the right balance with brightness and contrast to draw attention to your pieces, allowing them to take center stage. According to Architectural Digest, ambient room lighting should be reduced, while artwork-focused lighting should be more intense. Most designers recommend lighting artwork up to three times brighter than regular room lights.

Aiming your lights properly is also critical to getting your illumination just right. We love using fixtures with adjustable angles and beam spreads so that we can tweak them once everything’s installed. If you want precision, look for fixtures that offer multiple optics and accessories to control the beam shape and spread. There are even fixtures that act like projectors, throwing a perfect square or rectangle of light to match the profile of any piece to create the ultimate level of focus and drama.

Are you looking for a soft, sophisticated glow? Picture lights do an excellent job of providing a gentle pool of illumination rather than an even wash of bright light. Rather than primary lighting sources for a room or wall, these fixtures provide the essential second or third layer of light in a space to eliminate shadows and dark areas while elevating the look and feel. These are ideal where small accents are needed in spaces like cozy libraries, intimate dining rooms, and restful master bedrooms. And, of course, their elevated finish and forms can complement the décor in a room to provide the perfect finishing touch.

Properly lighting artwork can beautifully highlight your investments, elevate family heirlooms, and provide a sophisticated layer of illumination that can bring your experience from everyday to extraordinary. And while it can sound complex, following these high-level rules will make it easy.

Looking for more inspiration or to see great art lighting in action? Our showroom installations in Arlington and Chantilly include examples of each of these specialized light types, demonstrating just how their small size they can make a huge difference. Schedule your complimentary lighting design appointment with a member of our team today.


The Dominion Lighting team brings you insight and access to over 300 manufacturers to highlight your prized art and décor brilliantly. Schedule your complimentary design appointment today!
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